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Free agency imperils fan loyalty

3/1/2009 - NFL

In 1993, after signing with the Atlanta Falcons after seven mostly successful seasons with the New Orleans Saints, popular quarterback Bobby Hebert was asked about the pluses and minuses of the NFL's then-new free-agency plan.

"The one [drawback] to it all is that fans now have to root for the uniforms, not for the players," Hebert opined. "The individuals that they used to cheer for could be gone. It's not [good] for the fans."

It didn't take very long for Hebert's assessment to become self-fulfilling.

The next year, fullback Craig "Ironhead" Heyward, a Saints' fan favorite, joined the Falcons as a free agent. The next year, kicker Morten Andersen, arguably the most popular player in New Orleans history and a veteran who still made his home there, was released by the Saints for salary-cap reasons, and almost immediately signed a deal with the archrival Falcons.

It quickly became a matter of New Orleans' fans cheering for the team with the fleur-de-lis on the side of its helmet, rather than for the players who wore the headgear. Other guys, some unfamiliar free-agency interlopers, were wearing the numbers once owned by Hebert, Heyward and Andersen. The scoreboard still read "Saints," but something was different. The raucous New Orleans fan base loved its Saints, but some of the passion was definitely missing.

There is little doubt that the increasingly upward spiral in NFL contracts, which is almost exponential, has increased dramatically since the advent of the current free-agency system in 1993. Freedom definitely has fueled finances. But the system, although a boon for players, has been a bust of sorts for many fans.

It's true that free agency promulgates interest from fans in the offseason, at a time when interest in football has mostly waned. And the system has hardly had a negative impact on attendance. In the past several seasons, the league has enjoyed record ticket sales annually, and the television ratings remain high. Little can divert the public's love affair with NFL football.

But the old baseball adage that you can't tell the players without a scorecard holds true in the NFL now because of veteran player mobility each spring.

Longtime fans, especially those who adopted certain players, must re-learn the roster annually. The average NFL team turns over about one-third of its roster every year. It is difficult for the fans to keep track of who is coming and who is going. And some longtime loyalties have faded a bit, even while most franchises use free agency better of late and retain their essential players.

In an already faceless sport, because of the helmets, even star players have become increasingly anonymous.

Case in point: It has been only two full seasons since the Indianapolis Colts defeated the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI. The Indianapolis team that lined up for the championship game in Miami already has lost eight starters. The Colts were able to keep the number from climbing to nine Thursday evening when the team agreed to terms with standout center Jeff Saturday only hours before he went into the free-agent market.

Only this week, because of salary-cap implications, the Colts were painfully forced to release wide receiver Marvin Harrison, a 13-year veteran who had never been with any other franchise. Harrison was immediately recognizable when he walked down the streets of Indianapolis. The same probably won't be true of his replacement.

Loyalty is often paid lip service in the NFL, but when a veteran possesses diminishing skills, or a team is tight against the cap, loyalty is a one-way street.

The upshot: The Colts were already without tailback Edgerrin James, and now won't have Harrison around either. So, in only three seasons, Indianapolis has seen all but one of the trio dubbed "The Triplets" leave the team.

When he was a coach in the league, Jerry Glanville used to suggest that NFL was an acronym for "not for long." That's the case, for sure, in many free-agency situations. Rare is the player who is employed by just one team in his career.

The game itself remains incredibly popular and, in the minds of fans, has supplanted baseball as the national pastime. But because of free agency and the movement of so many players in the offseason, continuity has been difficult to maintain, except for a few of the NFL's most stable franchises.

The fans are excited by so many new faces, but that enthusiasm is offset a bit by the lack of amassed loyalty to certain popular players.

"You go to a new team, and you have to fit in quickly, not only from a personal standpoint but from a playing standpoint, as well," said tailback Mewelde Moore, the one meaningful free agent signed by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the spring of 2008.

It's not by mistake that the Steelers, who rely on the draft and developing their own players rather than correcting some other team's problems, are not only the reigning Super Bowl champions but also a franchise that always seems to be in the championship hunt.

A few years ago, a study was conducted on NFL offensive lines, and it was found that in the era of free agency, a blocking unit changed at least two starters every season. Such turnover, particularly on a unit that traditionally demands cohesion, definitely takes away from the quality of the game. And it leaves many fans scratching their heads and reaching for their programs.

For all the good that free agency has meant for veteran players, it has been a boondoggle of sorts for the fans who fill the stadiums.

Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.